The Very Large And The Very Small–Part 1

2012-massey-neil-turok-22012-Massey-Turok-coverI’m going to start with Neil Turok, because he’s concerned with both the universe (theoretical physics) and humanity (social justice); because he doesn’t know what will happen to humanity even in a hundred years, but if there’s a human future it depends on knowing and loving (not despairing) the present as well as interpreting as best we can the past; because he says, ‘to be pessimistic now is really ridiculous’; because he’s African (not European or North American); because he laughs a lot. image from the cbc.

The following is based on this interview and these Nova shows.

COBE_OVIn 1992 the COBE (COsmic Background Explorer) satellite (1989-1993, succeeded by the WMAP [2001-2013] and the Planck [2013-] missions) mapped the universe and streamed a wealth of data, evidence supporting Turok’s work and revealing new wonders of the cosmos. Turok said, ‘To be pessimistic now is really ridiculous. I mean, people have been waiting for at least two thousand years to answer these questions’, he smiles. ‘We have the data. You want to give up now? You must be mad!’ Never give up, for you never know.

WMAP whiteThat determination to never give up must come from his childhood. In 1961, when he was three, his father was jailed 3½ years for resisting apartheid. Before his father was released, his mother was jailed, and for six months he was raised by his grandmother. After their release they left South Africa as refugees, first to Kenya for six months, then to Tanzania for two years. They moved when Turok was ten to Britain, which was a shock: cold climate and grey people, but excellent grammar schools. Turok never lost his wonder in nature and geometry. In Tanzania he had an exceptional teacher, Margaret Carnie, a Scot, who taught maths and sciences. She told Turok he could be whatever he wanted to be. Decades later, she asked Turok of the Big Bang, ‘What banged?’ ‘Indeed, it is the single most important question,’ he said. Not ‘Why did it bang?’ or ‘How did it bang?’, but ‘What banged?’ However, initially he wanted to be an entomologist, for ‘there is no better way to appreciate nature than to see the incredible diversity and refinement of natural organisms.’ So he went to Cambridge to study biology, but after six months he changed to theoretical physics. ‘It is the most powerful, simple, effective part of science we know.’ It pursues the single most important question, What banged? hover over image for attribution.

Stringinteractions.svg-from-wpSo, what banged? To explain that, Turok prefers the cyclic model (as opposed to, I don’t what it’s called, the one-time-only model). He and Paul Steinhardt proposed a version in 1999. It came from M-theory, a string theory proposed by Ed Witten which adds another dimension to string theory’s nine, thus unifying existing string theories and allowing strings to become branes (short for membranes), branes to become spaces, and so on. A string in physics is a vibrating bundle of energy. A problem with M-theory is that a string is so small, much, much, much smaller than an atom, that the theory can’t be tested–so is it science or is it philosophy? Also, M-theory requires ten dimensions, and that’s hard, even for theoretical physicists. A problem it solves, however, is that string theory unites the physics of the very large (gravity) with the physics of the very small (subatomic particles), and that’s alluring. It does so by proposing a graviton, unifying Einstein‘s formula of the very large for gravity with Maxwell‘s and Dirac‘s formulae of the very small for particles. (continued in Part 2) image from wikipedia.

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